On The Shoulders Of Giants: Black Women Politicians Who Paved The Way For Kamala Harris

On The Shoulders Of Giants: Black Women Politicians Who Paved The Way For Kamala Harris

As the first Black woman on a major party ticket to accept the nomination for vice president, Harris has these women to thank who came before her.

PUBLISHED ON : AUGUST 19, 2020 / 10:43 PM

Written by Melanie Eversley

Black women voters will be key to the November 2020 general election and one person who is perhaps more attuned to Black women and the campaign than anyone else is Sen. Kamala Harris.

As she prepares to become the first Black woman nominated to serve as vice president, Harris, a Democratic U.S. senator from California, is in the middle of a campaign that has included numerous nods to her HBCU alma mater, Howard University, her historically Black sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, and to women in general. 

At a campaign event earlier this year with Joe Biden, Harris acknowledged, “all the heroic and ambitious women before me whose sacrifice, determination and resilience makes my presence here today even possible.”

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During Wednesday’s Democratic National Convention, several women will take the stage but it's Harris who will make history, formally accepting her party’s nomination under the evening’s theme of “a more perfect union.”

Here are some of the Black women who have broken ground in American politics and set the stage tonight for Harris to have this moment:


  1. Fannie Lou Hamer
    American civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer (1917 - 1977) testifies before the Credentials Committee at Democratic National Convention in speech that was televised nationally, Atlantic City, New Jersey, August 22, 1964. Hamer spoke on behalf of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party who had been denied seats at the convention by organizers acting on behalf of the 'regular' Mississippi democratic party's delegation. (Photo by John Dominis/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)
    Getty Images

    Mississippi native Fannie Lou Hamer fought for Black voting rights and women’s rights at a time when women — especially Black women — were typically not part of those activist spaces. Hamer’s life experiences, from picking cotton as a child to having a white doctor perform an unauthorized  hysterectomy on her, fueled her unwavering drive to create change. She became an organizer for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and, in 1964, co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic party. She also co-founded the National Women’s Political Caucus. Hamer also pushed thousands of Black southerners to register to vote. She died in 1977 of breast cancer.

  2. Shirley Chisholm
    Getty Images

    New York native Shirley Chisholm became the first Black woman in Congress in 1968. She was also the first Black woman to seek the Democratic nomination for the White House. The title of her autobiography, Unbought and Unbossed, has evolved into a slogan meant to describe her way of practicing politics. The former schoolteacher who later consulted New York City on educational matters began her political career in the New York State Legislature, becoming its second Black representative. In the U.S. House, she introduced more than 50 bills aimed at healing poverty, attacking race and gender inequalities and addressing issues related to the Vietnam War. She died of stroke in 2005 and is entombed at Buffalo’s Forest Lawn Cemetery next to her second husband, Arthur Hardwick.

  3. Charlotta Bass
    (Original Caption) 10/16/1952-Washington, DC-: Mrs. Charlotta A. Bass, Progressive Party candidate for Vice President, is shown as she told a news conference today that the US should "STOP SHOOTING NOW" in Korea and negotiate afterwards. Mrs. Bass, a Negro, says she sees no progress towards Civil Rights under the present administration and no hope of progress under the present Democratic and Republican nominees. She further stated that the Progressive Party polled 1,000,000 votes in 1948 and expected to pull as many this November.
    Getty Images

    South Carolina native Charlotta Bass was the first Black woman candidate for vice president. Representing the Progressive Party in 1952, she told convention delegates, “I stand before you with great pride … For the first time in the history of this nation, a political party has chosen a Negro woman for the second highest office in the land.” Bass also is believed to be the first Black woman to own and operate a newspaper in the United States. After moving to Los Angeles, she took control of the Black-owned Eagle under the wishes of its owner before his death. She changed the paper’s name to The California Eagle and widened its coverage to include police brutality and the Ku Klux Klan. She died of a a cerebral hemorrhage in 1969.

  4. Cynthia McKinney
    NEW YORK - JULY 18:  Green Party presidential candidate Cynthia McKinney speaks at her New York ballot campaign launch July 18, 2008 in New York City. The firebrand 6-term Congresswoman from Georgia left the Democratic party to join the Greens.  (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
    Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

    Atlanta native Cynthia McKinney was the first Black woman to represent Georgia in Congress. She served eight terms in the U.S. House, working alongside recently deceased congressman and civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis. In 2008, McKinney switched parties and ran for president as the nominee for the United States Green Party. After the 2011 terror attacks, she was one of the most vocal voices advocating for investigations of unexplained events. She also pressed for the unsealing of FBI documents related to the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the late Tupac Shakur. McKinney was known for her unconventional approach, courage and ability to balk at the established traditions put in place by the white men who came before her. Today, she is an assistant professor at North South University in Bangladesh.

  5. Carol Moseley Braun
    UNITED STATES - JUNE 15:  Carol Mosley Braun, candidate for the senate from Illinois, at a fundraiser at the Sheraton,  (Photo by William LaForce Jr./NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
    Photo by Getty Images

    Chicago native Carol Moseley Braun became the first Black woman to serve in the U.S. Senate in 1993 and was the first Black person to serve in the U.S. Senate since Reconstruction representing Illinois. The daughter of a policeman and a medical technician, she became a federal prosecutor for the Chicago region and was an Illinois state representative for 10 years. In 1988, she became Cook County’s first Black recorder of deeds before moving on to the U.S. Senate. There, she advocated successfully against the perpetuation of the Confederate flag and frequently sparred with late segregationist Sen. Jesse Helms.

    This year, Moseley Braun has been campaigning for the Biden-Harris ticket.

(L-R) Photo courtesy of Sen. Kamala Harris; Fanny Lou Hamer at 1968 Democratic Convention, Shirley Chisholm at Congressional election in Brooklyn's 12th District and Charlotta A. Bass, Progressive Party candidate for Vice President in Washington, DC in 1952 all from Getty Images.


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